Candidate for judge says she has overcome challenges to be an advocate for children in crisis
ALBION – Tonia Ettinger is running for Orleans County judge against Sanford Church. The election is Nov. 7. Ettinger has the endorsement of the Conservative and Democratic parties, and Church has the backing of the Republican Party.
Ettinger, 39, works as an attorney in Rochester for the Legal Aid Society. She is an Orleans County native who currently lives in Farmington, Ontario County, with her fiancé Paul Fuller and their 7-year-old son, Blake. (Fuller ran for county judge against James Punch in 2010. Punch was re-elected to a 10-year term, but retired on July 29, creating the vacancy that will be filled with the Nov. 7 election.)
Ettinger was born at the former Arnold Gregory Memorial Hospital in Albion. She lived in Holley before moving to Medina, where she graduated. She earned a law degree at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
For the past eight years she has worked at the Legal Aid Society in Rochester in the Juvenile Justice Division. In her job with Legal Aid, Ettinger works with low-income clients from birth to age 21.
Ettinger was interviewed by Orleans Hub editor Tom Rivers on Sunday at Tim Hortons in Albion.
Question: You’ve talked about growing up in poverty. How did that effect your decision to want to be an attorney?
Answer: With my upbringing, I struggled a lot with poverty. I’m one of four children. My mom and stepfather divorced when I was very young. It took a toll on me. I cared for my younger siblings while my mother went out and worked.
My mother is a wonderful woman and is the person who really created me. Those lessons I think have really helped me, not only in my professional career but in my personal life, to have value for the things that I earn. I had to fight for everything in my professional life. This is just another fight along the way.
I had to fight to get through school. I put myself through college. I worked at McDonalds in Medina when I was in high school. Later I worked at Movie World. That’s no longer in existence in Medina. I had a job at Tops simultaneously with one of those other jobs. So I worked throughout school, throughout college, throughout law school because I wasn’t going to have those resources any other way. My mom certainly would have given me the money if she had it. And so I had to fight.
Some things that maybe other people take for granted, just filling out FAFSA forms and student loan applications, those are the things I had to struggle with. There was nobody there to help me with those things. Nobody in my family had gone to college before, let alone graduate school. So I knew from going through all that as a child that I wanted to make a better life for myself, and I wanted to help other people make a better life for themselves, to know that even if you come from humble beginnings, you can do good things in your life.
Question: How do you think your background would affect you in the role as judge?
Answer: Your background certainly has an effect on your person, but when someone sits on the bench it’s very important for that person to be fair and impartial and not pass judgement on the person who appears before them based on where they come from or how much money they have, or their race and gender. I think that’s really key.
Question: How long have you been an attorney?
Answer: I have been admitted to practice law for almost 14 years. I was admitted in February 2004.
Question: When you started your career in Orleans County as attorney, what kind of work or cases were you doing?
Answer: I did some real estate, some minor criminal cases, I did probate, drafted some wills and drafted some separation agreements. It was a little bit of everything when I was in private practice. It was a small firm and I did a lot of their general litigation items. (Ettinger started with Robert Slocum, who has a law office in Brockport). I was primarily in Orleans but I did do some work in Monroe as well, and other outlying counties. Then in 2009 I moved on to the Legal Aid Society.
Question: Why did you come back to work in Orleans after getting your law degree?
Answer: This is what I knew. This is what I was familiar with. This is my home.
It’s a smaller county. There are attorneys who guided me and helped me along the way, which I’m very grateful for. But it’s certainly a much different feel than the court in Monroe County.
Question: I thought it was interesting that you were president of the Orleans County Bar Association as a young attorney.
Answer: I was the vice president from 2005 until 2008. And then from 2008 until 2010, I was the president of the Bar Association. I was the president of the Bar Association even after I stopped being in private practice and went to the Legal Aid Society.
Question: How did it happen that you were president of the Bar Association?
Answer: It was a position that was voted on, and I wanted to be involved so I put myself forward.
Question: I remember going to mock trial events. You were involved in that?
Answer: I coordinated it for a number of years.
Question: At the Legal Aid Society and working in the bigger courts, has that broadened your horizons?
Answer: I’ve been able to get exposures to a lot more judges a lot more attorneys. It’s helpful to see how different judges rule on different issues and it is helpful to see how other attorneys practice because each attorney is unique. It vastly improved my trial experience because my caseload is pretty high and I’m constantly in court, I’m constantly litigating. So I think that it’s made me a better lawyer.
Question: Why pursue the county judge position?
Answer: I’ve been at the Legal Aid Society for almost nine years now. I represent children there. I’m able to help them in so many facets of their life. I’d like to think that I help them. I represent kids who have been abused and neglected, paternity cases, custody visitation, juvenile delinquencies, so pretty much everything.
I see in some cases the impact I’m having on the lives of these children, and I just want to take that to the next step. That’s why I am seeking this.
Question: Has it been fun on the campaign these past six weeks or so, reconnecting with people?
Answer: It’s not a really a matter of reconnecting because my family is here, my mom is one of 12 siblings. Many of my aunts and uncles live here. I am here often. I lived here more than half of my life.
Question: Anything else you want to say?
Answer: This has been an extremely humbling experience. I am extremely grateful for the amount of support I have received from my friends, my family, and also from complete strangers. It means a lot to me that the Conservative Party and the Democratic Party where able to come together and support me. Those are not two parties that often match.
Most of all I am thankful that the voters of my home county will have a choice this election season. I think that is so important in any race. This year it’s especially meaningful because it’s been 100 years since women had the right to vote in New York State.